The Grizzlies is an uplifting sports drama set in the remote Inuit town of Kuglugtuk in Nunavut, Canada. A true story, prefaced with the sombre fact that it holds the highest suicide rate in North America. Ben Schnetzer plays Russ Shepherd, the draftee teacher that uses lacrosse to win over the local kids, eventually taking them to a national tournament in Toronto. There are questions of a white saviour complex but the film largely manages to avoid this by exploring the world of its characters more than the genre requires. It’s very well-crafted but would have been more successful with a greater focus on Inuit culture and the plight of the kids – a world most know very little about.
The Grizzlies opens with a sombre sequence in which a young boy traverses the brutal terrain of his homeland before stopping at a rocky outcrop. He sadly shoos away his dog before taking his rifle to his chin and committing suicide. This is the problem that besets the Inuit youth. ‘Work for school’ teacher Russ Shepherd pitches up in the town Kuglugtuk as a history teacher, completely unaware of the local community’s traditions or way of life. He spends $300 dollars in the convenience store on a couple of items – all of the locals hunt for their food. This is a tough way of life and far from the western style that we are used to.
The kids aren’t interested in school as it won’t get them anywhere in this community. They have to hunt and help their families just to survive. Many have turned to drink and drugs just to get through the tough nature of their existence. Many struggle with familial issues such as Kyle (BooBoo Stewart) who has to deal with an abusive father, scarred by his experience in a residential school. Adam (Ricky Marty-Pahtaykan) is an excellent hunter with no real need for school in his community. Russ tries to get through to the kids with lacrosse, a “white man’s sport” and is met with fierce resistance. Slowly though, he gains the trust of the children and they form a team, both learning something valuable from each other as they train for the big tournament in Toronto.
This is a cliché-laden genre already so it’s tough for The Grizzlies to avoid tropes but it largely manages to stay fresh, mostly in its portrayal of the downtrodden, indigenous kids. It doesn’t shy away from its shocking source material which makes it all the more powerful when it gets it right. The true nature of suicide in Northern Canada is shocking. The acting is strong all around. The troubles this community faces feel truly real and it’s hard not to be taken by their very real grief. This is added to by the harsh surroundings, filmed on location and beautifully so by cinematographer Jim Denault.
However, the majority of the sports sections and trials of the Russ character slip heavily into cliché. It’s a story we’ve all heard before. The film loses its way a little in the second act as the kids train with Russ but regains to finish strongly on a positive note. A note forced through by the children, rather than their white saviour.
The Grizzlies is an enjoyable and inspiring, if slightly unoriginal tale. The atmosphere DIRECTOR creates is fantastic: sombre and eerie against the barren backdrop of Nunavut. She struggles to balance this with the stereotypical sports triumph however, with the film often feeling like two different pieces mashed together. It does manage to avoid promoting the image of a white saviour and bring attention to a very real problem which I’m sure very few of us were aware of prior, and this is where The Grizzlies excels.
Ewan Wood | [rating=3]
Biography, Drama | Canada, 2018 | 15 | 2019 Edinburgh FIlm Festival | 23rd June | Dir.Miranda de Pencier | Ben Schnetzer, Will Sasso, Paul Nutarariaq, Ricky Marty-Pahtaykan